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When Garth Brooks – And Country Music – Took Center Stage

It’s as important a moment in Pop Culture as The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

And yet there’s virtually nothing about it anywhere, even on his official website.

But on Friday, January 17th, 1992, 9PM, Garth Brooks put America on notice that Country Music would no longer take a back seat to Rock…or Pop…or anything.

28.6 million viewers tuned in that evening, enough to make This Is Garth Brooks the most-watched program of the night, and NBC’s #2 most-popular show that week.

This special introduced us all to the Third Verses of both “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends In Low Places”, making moments like THIS possible.

Later that year, This Is Garth Brooks was released to the public on a VHS tape with nearly a half-hour of bonus footage. Today, it’s part of the DVD compilation Garth Brooks: The Entertainer.

The VHS release of "This Is Garth Brooks". To my knowledge, it's never been made available on DVD/Blue Ray or for digital download. The DEFINITIVE live, third-verse versions of "Friends In Low Places" and "The Thunder Rolls" are on this tape. (From Charlie's personal collection)

The VHS release of “This Is Garth Brooks”. (From Charlie’s personal archives)

What made this such an historic occasion?

Well, before Garth Brooks, Country existed in the backwaters of Pop Culture.

Sure, there was Hee-Haw.

Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Barbara Mandrell also had hit TV shows.

Kenny RogersCrystal Gayle and others saw success on Top 40 radio as “crossover artists.”

But such exposure rarely brought new fans to Country Music.

The Outlaw Revolution took place outside the spotlight of Pop Culture. And few outside Country noticed when in 1986, Randy Travis tossed a musical stick of dynamite at the entire Nashville establishment, planting the seeds that would take Country center stage.

By 1991, the Boomer generation was seeking alternatives to an increasingly stale Pop/Rock scene; often finding them in the likes of Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Reba and George Strait.

That same year, Soundscan technology to track music sales began…and Country Music turned out to be more popular than anyone had imagined.

For the first time, the most popular songs in America included tunes that were too Country to be Pop hits…like “Friends In Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls.”

The music press outside Nashville began to take notice, but didn’t understand. Rolling Stone summed up the sentiments of an increasingly clueless circle of Pop Culture journalists, when in late ’91, they asked, with no small measure of frustration, “Who Is Garth Brooks?” 

And then Garth answered the question in a TV special filled with Country Music and no small measure of humor.

The Billboard 200 Album Chart had been a horse race between Michael Jackson, Nirvana (who themselves were reinventing Rock) and Garth Brooks.

Garth, and by association, Country Music, won.

Actually, to a slightly lesser extent, so did Nirvana, whose Grunge sound eventually influenced the entire mainstream of Pop/Rock culture.

Which brings us back to my original point.

Once, there was a discernible Mass Culture in music. Top 40 drove that culture. Most of your friends, classmates, co-workers were aware of the hits and the artists who made them.

In 1964, 70 million watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And in 1983, over 50 million saw Michael Jackson do the moonwalk on the Motown 25 special.

But from 1992 forward, Country Music became as popular as Pop itself, eventually splitting Mass Culture in two and destroying Top 40’s power to drive it.

Country concerts grew from intimate halls and state fairs to amphitheaters, stadiums and outdoor festivals, breaking records along the way. An estimated 980,000 saw Garth Brooks’ free show in Central Park in 1997.

8/7/1997: Garth: Live In Central Park. Mayor Giuliani's expected 300,000 to attend. The promoter said 1 Million. 980,000 showed up, a record that still stands at the time of this post. (BOB STRONG/AFP/Getty Images)

8/7/1997: Garth: Live In Central Park. Mayor Giuliani’s office expected 300,000 to attend. The promoter predicted 1 Million. 980,000 showed up, a record that still stands at the time of this post. (BOB STRONG/AFP/Getty Images)

And in US album sales, Brooks tops all solo artists. Even Elvis.

He wasn’t the first Everyman to strike a chord with the public. But he DID have the right songs – and presentation – at exactly the right time. And ONLY Country radio/TV played his music.

Garth Brooks’ popularity benefited the entire genre.

Proof?

The #2 best-selling Country artist, George Strait, has outsold even The Rolling Stones.

 

 

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